La Traviata

(foreground) Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo, Shaina Martinez as Violetta; (second row left) Jackson Beaman as Gastone; (second row right) Daniel Morris as Marquis d’Obigny, Morgan Balfour as Annina. All photos by Otak Jump.

As one of the most beloved and most performed operas in the repertoire, virtually any opera lover will know the story line of “La Traviata,” so there are few secrets here.  And in opera reviews, spoilers don’t pertain.  Briefly, Violetta is a courtesan.  Alfredo falls in love with her.  While they are living together, Alfredo’s father Giorgio appeals to Violetta, suggesting that his daughter’s engagement would be compromised if Alfredo married a woman of questionable repute.  Violetta’s graciousness in abandoning her beloved astonishes the initially skeptical Giorgio. Violetta, who has suffered consumption from the outset, dies.

Shaina Martinez as Violetta, Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo.

West Bay Opera takes on this war horse, and as one who had already seen six productions of “La Traviata,” you’ll understand why your reviewer approached it with little enthusiasm.  But it’s easy to forget how soaring and melodic Verdi’s music is from curtain to curtain and how it can sweep you away.  West Bay operates with the usual constraints of a small, suburban opera company in dealing with a large production like this.  Additional obstacles derive from their facility – like having a pit inadequate for the orchestra and having to place some musicians in either stage wing.  The outcome of all of these imperfections? – a great success!

Ballet dancers and chorus.

“La Traviata” opens with one of its two party scenes, and immediately, the audience is regaled with one of the opera’s myriad of highlights, the brindisi, or drinking song, ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ (‘Let’s drink from the joyful cups’).  Alfredo must sing in full voice from the outset, and Alonso Sicarios-León, performing the part, brightens up to commence a solid rendition.  He follows with the lead on the beautiful love duet ‘Un di felice, eterea’ (‘One day, happy and ethereal’) and demonstrates not only emotional power often associated with Italianate style, but a textured, rich voice with excellent control of dynamics.  He exhibits many fine qualities that are well suited to tenor roles in the 19th century canon.

Sicarios-León pairs well with his Violetta, Shaina Martinez, who joins her counterpart in the delightful Act 1 duets.  A lyric soprano, she possesses enough edge to give gravitas and strength to her mid and upper range, though her low end lacks similar penetration.  Martinez also demonstrates fine coloratura skills with quick trills and runs in her solo parts.  She offers a well-defined ‘È strano!….Ah, fors’ è lui’ (‘Ah, perhaps he is the one’).  In the ultimate scene, and adhering to one of the conventions in opera that we have come to accept, she belts out with great passion and power her ‘Gran Dio!…morir sì giovane’ (‘Great God!…to die so young’) just before dying from a lung abrading disease!

Morgan Balfour as Annina, Joshua Hughes as Grenville.

The impediment to the lovers’ happiness is Geogio, who is portrayed as sympathetically as possible by baritone Jason Duika.  He brings great earnestness to the part, and his singing is smooth and mellow, if slightly cloaked.  He also handles quick patter and his duet with Alfredo ably.  And he delivers his signature aria‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol chi dal cor ti cancellò?’ (‘Who erased the sea, the land of Provence from your heart?’) which is directed at his son with great mellifluous intensity.

Supporting roles are performed with great aplomb as well.  Morgan Balfour as Annina, Jackson Beaman as Gastone, and Joshua Hughes as Grenville were in particularly good voice for this performance, as was the chorus. The graceful ballet dancers choreographed by Kara Davis provide an excellent diversion.

Alonso Sicarios-León as Alfredo, Shaina Martinez as Violetta.

As usual, General Director and Conductor José-Luis Moskovich marshals a fine orchestra and production.  Of course, the party scenes in particular require special attention, and director Igor Vieira ensures their grandeur.  Peter Crompton’s set follows the West Bay template with multiple stage levels, massive columns, and projections that produce considerable scenic detail in two dimensions.  Callie Floor’s costumes give the requisite elegant period look.

“La Traviata,” with music by Giuseppe Verdi and libretto by Francesco Maria Piave is based on the novel “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexander Dumas fils, produced by West Bay Opera, and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through October 23, 2022.

A Nice Family Gathering

(Rear) Alejandra Wahl as Stacy, Peter Marietta as Carl, Kyle Smith as Dad (visible only to Carl). (Foreground) Marsha Howard as Mom (facing away), J. Aaron Seymour as Jerry, Byron Guo as Michael. All photos by Grizzly de Haro.

What tradition is more American than a family get together for Thanksgiving dinner?  Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” occurs on such an occasion, but with a couple of wrinkles.  It takes place in Minnesota, embracing a panoply of only-in-Minnesota traits, including the dialogue being delivered in droll sing-songy Scandinavian-American accents, replete with the signature “you betcha!”  And, oh yes, there’s a spirit in the house that has nothing to do with alcohol.

Altarena Playhouse has taken this endearing and hilarious parlor comedy and made it their own.  Under the masterful direction of Kimberly Ridgeway, every role is performed exquisitely with crackling comedic timing.  The play moves briskly, offering a laugh-out-loud evening with just the right soupçon of sentimentality.

Peter Marietta as Carl.

Missing from the reunion is Dad, a physician who died 10 months before.  However, unbeknownst to others, his ghost appeared to son Carl at his funeral, and he has returned for Thanksgiving.  In a chatty column that Carl writes for the local weekly paper, he had captured his father as “the man who loved his wife so much that he almost told her.”

Now, the deceased wants to tell his widow how much he loved her.  Higher authorities have designated Carl as his mouthpiece, but the son begrudges the assignment, because he never felt that his Dad really loved him.  Mom shows symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and it’s not clear how she would respond to supposed communication from beyond the grave.  Complicating matters, she has invited a date to dinner, Jerry, who was a golf buddy of Dad’s.  You can imagine Dad’s reaction to that.  As Dad, Kyle Smith mines his irascibility with sardonic humor.  He convinces as one who regrets that he didn’t express his love for all of his family when he was alive.

Alejandra Wahl as Stacy, Missa Perron as Jill, Marsha Howard as Mom.

Beyond the ethereal thread in the narrative, a family in dysfunction unveils.  Mom, who is played in appropriately drowsy understatement by Marsha Howard, is a doozy.  She delivers hot water that is supposed to be coffee; blithely draws everyone’s attention to announce an agenda for the day comprised of one item; and can’t remember her daughter’s name, if she can remember her at all.  But when she discusses her estate, she sounds like a Certified Financial Planner.

Despite Mom’s isolation and mental state, her children rarely visit. Carl, the central character who communicates with the living and the one dead, has the opportunity, but he’s both self-indulgent and self-conscious.  He hopes to earn a living as a writer, and like most artists, he identifies himself by his aspiration.  What pays the rent is driving a Pillsbury Doughboy truck, so he hasn’t set the world on fire.  As Carl, Peter Marietta brings great charisma, yet he uncovers the character’s ambivalence and resentment and makes him quirky and very funny.

(foreground) Marsha Howard as Mom, Peter Marietta as Carl, (rear) Alejandra Wahl as Stacy.

Older brother, Michael, played by an effusive, confident, and condescending Byron Guo, has met Dad’s expectations.  He possesses the trappings of being a physician, from the country club to the BMW, but he has marital issues, as evidenced by the frequent crying fits of wife Jill, effectively portrayed by Missa Perron.  Alejandra Wahl captures the diffidence of younger sister, Stacy.  Who knows whether her timidity is the cause or the effect, but everyone around seems to forget or ignore her.  However, she will come to life with surprises that will grab everyone’s attention.  Finally, J. Aaron Seymour nicely conveys the slipperiness of the interloper, Jerry, who tries to ingratiate himself with Mom and her protectors.

Objectively, most of the characters in “A Nice Family Gathering” are not sympathetic, but the plights that they confront are common, and their frailties are human and understandable.  The goofiness of their personas, exacerbated by their accents, also take the edge off of their weaker traits.  Humor abounds.  Mom tells a pizza story with a conclusion that is a total non sequitur.  That story and the implausible ending are even reprised to more laughter.  Carl frequently must cover up for talking to his invisible Dad by acting as if he’s talking into his recorder.

Finally, the staging enhances the overall effect.  Tom Shamrell’s single-set design expresses hominess and works nicely to allow activity in the main room as well as outdoors.  Stephanie Anne Johnson’s usually unobtrusive lighting with occasional directional floods is very effective.

J. Aaron Seymour as Jerry, Marsha Howard as Mom, Kyle Smith as Dad (invisible), Byron Guo as Michael.

We can often overlook any deeper meaning when seeing a comedic play, but this one actually has a lot to say.  It honors selfless mothers; urges the courage to say and do the right things before it is too late; advocates following our dreams; pillories slavish devotion to status symbols; and asks us to better understand those who are near to us.

“A Nice Family Gathering” by Phil Olson, is produced by Altarena Playhouse and is performed on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through November 20, 2022.

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Heidi Stober as Blanche, Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy. All photos by Cory Weaver.

How fitting that “Dialogues of the Carmelites” should be produced by San Francisco Opera in its centennial year and that the production should be so brilliant and stunning.  Not only did Francis Poulenc’s opera have its U.S. premiere here in 1957, but the performance by the great Leontyne Price as the New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, represented her career launch in a big house with a major company.

Poulenc requested his opera be performed in the language of the audience because he wanted it fully understood.  However, with the advent of supertitles, San Francisco Opera offers it for the first time in French, the libretto language to which the music was designed, without the sacrifice of translation nuance.

Religious operas, or more broadly, those concerning faith, can be fractious.  “Dialogues” is based on the true story of 16 Carmelite nuns of Compiègne who were guillotined in 1794 during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror because of their unwillingness to compromise their faith.

Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy, Heidi Stober as Blanche.

We live in a divided age when many have abandoned religion, and the Bay Area represents the leading edge of humanistic thinking unfettered by religious stricture.  So how can such a story speak to a community like ours?  Although its religious trappings are unrelenting, universal themes underpin the story – communal and personal love; growth and change; courage and sacrifice.

Poulenc himself was a troubled soul – committed to Catholic doctrine despite being gay.  He also suffered the untimely loss of a dear friend from decapitation, leaving him profoundly depressed.  Although he relied on detailed source material to create “Dialogues,” he penned one fictional character, the protagonist, Blanche.  No doubt, his personal history led him to this particular material, and his own fears and conflicts are manifest through his fictional character.

Deanna Breiwick as Constance, Heidi Stober as Blanche.

This opera rightfully stands as one of the post-Puccini era’s most often performed.  Perhaps one reason is the melodiousness of its score, in contrast to much modern opera.  Poulenc even joked that he was sorry, but his nuns insist on singing tonally.  Yet the vocals consist mostly of recitatives and arioso, with little that could be considered arias.  However, the orchestra, guided decisively by Eun Sun Kim in this production, adds color, particularly with accents and percussive punctuation.

The plotline centers on Blanche, performed by a scintillating Heidi Stober, sometimes brittle in her character but assertive in her singing.  She is a coddled aristocrat who fears for her life during the Reign of Terror and seeks escape in the convent.  Madame de Croissy, the “Old Prioress,” is dubious, noting that the convent is a place of prayer, not of refuge, but she relents.

As Croissy soon lies dying a difficult death, she grapples with her having accepted Blanche as the most recent novice.  More significantly, Croissy had been a sturdy and brave leader who reveals uncharacteristic anguish and fears death during her decline.  Michaela Schuster provides the opera’s most powerful and harrowing soliloquy in her lengthy death scene, aided by a scenic device in which her bed is set vertically on a wall to allow her singing to project better.

Michelle Bradley as Madame Lidoine (center).

To cognoscenti, “Dialogues” can be appreciated with great depth beyond the superficial plot.  In the aforementioned scene, Constance, the other novice, notes that Croissy’s gruesome end, despite her past strength, means that she is dying someone else’s death, and in this case, it is in exchange for Blanche who will then face death with courage and calm.  This pertains to the religious notion of belonging to a Beloved Community and to the sacrificial love aspect of agape.

Another layer that most will miss is the richness from the unusual pastiche that the composer employs.  Each of the five key principals shares personal traits and musical motifs with heroines from earlier operas.  Blanche (Heidi Stober) reflects the title character in “Thaïs,” Constance (Deanna Briewick) is Zerlina from “Don Giovanni,” Croissy (Michaela Schuster) is Amneris from “Aida,” Marie (Melody Moore) is Kundry from “Parsifal,” and Madame Lidoine (Michelle Bradley) is Desdemona from “Otello.”  All of these artists meet the demands of their roles, with Bradley displaying the most commanding voice. The men, led by Ben Bliss as Blanche’s brother, also impress.

Olivier Py, who designed the original realization of this production also adds symbols to enhance the opera’s complexity.  Several dioramas representing moments in the life of Christ embellish the action, two of which will resonate with most opera goers.  As the nuns await their doom, they appear in a scene reflecting the Last Supper, and later, a Crucifixion tableau links their faith to their deaths.

Efrain Solis as Jailer (upper left window), cast.

The overall abstract stage design symbolizes the nuns’ appearance and lives.  The set can be described as “a study of right angles in shades of gray, with movement.”  Charcoal gray abounds, and spectral color appears only as occasional highlights.  The austerity of the set fits well with most of what it represents, especially the convent and the prison, and the versatility and mobility of the pieces is striking.

The musical composition of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is strong, with intense characterizations, although the narrative moves slowly at times.  Add excellent artistic design and strong portrayals to make for a memorable experience.  And if impression and memory are dominated by recency, the opera goer will leave the house with a vivid and despairing chill as the nuns depart the stage one by one to the swishing, thudding sound of the guillotine and the convulsing of their bodies to the violence of politics gone mad.


Historically, the nuns’ singing as they ascended the gallows quieted the bloodthirsty crowd that gathered at these beheadings.  In less than two weeks, Robespierre’s degenerate reign ended with his execution at the guillotine.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites,” with music and libretto by Francis Poulenc and based on the play of the same name by Georges Bernanos is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through October 30, 2022.

Sex With Strangers

Matthew Kropschot as Ethan, Allison F. Rich as Olivia. All photos by Dave Lepori.

Some years ago, when the partisan, caustic, and confrontational Bill O’Reilly was Fox Television’s most highly rated commentator, he was interviewed by a correspondent from another network.  During the exchange, he averred that his real personality, known to friends and neighbors, was much different than his celebrity persona.  He proudly claimed to be a mild-mannered, accommodating friend and family man.  What amounts to his plea for respect raises two questions.  Which is the real character, or do both realizations deserve recognition as life forces?  Also, what is the relative importance of the purported private personage who influences tens of people to the public personage who influences millions?

Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” explores the concept of public versus private behavior and much more.  At first, it seems that this may simply be an amusing story, but the longer it plays, the deeper it gets, exposing many sometimes provocative layers, peppered with humor and conflict.  San Jose Stage presents a sensationally acted and directed production of this powerhouse two hander.

How many English teachers are frustrated authors hoping to write the great American novel?  Olivia aspires to just that, and in fact, she’s taken one step in the right direction having published a novel that received many positive reviews, but paltry sales revenues.  One winter break, she sequesters herself alone in a cottage rented out by a friend.  Unexpectedly, another guest arrives during a snowstorm.  It turns out that the younger Ethan is not only a writer as well, but surprisingly, he has read her book.  Shortly, she finds that his joining her in this isolation was no accident.

Allison F. Rich exquisitely captures the archetype that Olivia represents.  She subsumes her urges beneath a mantle of intellectual superiority, cocooning herself with tomes from the likes of Tolstoy and Marguerite Duras while sipping a glass of wine.  But as she minces about pigeon-toed, her reserve and seeming serenity belie deep-seated insecurities about fear of failure.  Having lost at love and unable to endure the occasional negative reviews that her book received, she has withdrawn into a satisficing, defensive existence.

Ethan blasts into her scene like a blue norther, and Matthew Kropschot perfectly explodes into Ethan’s uninhibited and fearless personality.  He is chalk to Olivia’s cheese.  He meets her curtness, suspicion, and protectiveness with audaciousness, soon asking her for a glass of wine and later sex.  His swaggering effusiveness towers over her, and he represents virtually the opposite of everything that she values, breaking all rules of propriety from the outset.

Although he contrived this rendezvous because he respected her writing, it was his books that spent several years on the New York Times best seller list.  The hitch is that they were books about his sexual conquests with virtual strangers, which like his personality, repels Olivia.  But she realizes that he is intelligent.  Upon his establishing some credibility, he gives her encouragement and admiringly quotes from her book.  Olivia’s social and sexual repression break loose.  She soon finds herself attracted to the side of him that she experiences, but still wonders about the callous, misogynistic person in the exploits of his books.

As their relationship evolves, the question of Ethan’s motivation arises as well.  Here is a man in his late 20s with a massive libido and an impressive history of variety seeking in bedding partners.  Why, all of a sudden, is he so interested in an older woman more comfortable in a library than a bar?  Is he really so taken with her intellect and her writing that he can quiet his hormonal hunt?  Can he be using her, and if so, for what?  Although he is starting an app to help less-known authors reach their audience, how big a prize catch would a virtual unknown, part-time writer with one book published represent?  Does he see romance with Olivia as a step toward respectability?

The play covers quite a bit of territory, built in part around the impact of the Internet.  At a generic level, it alludes to changes wrought in personal behavior and privacy.  More specifically, we see the effect on the publishing industry of electronic media, which has decimated the print world.  Ever the resistant traditionalist, Olivia loves the look and feel and even the smell of a real book.  Ethan is an unsentimental man of the moment.

Ultimately, clashes will occur.  Olivia, who is strongly guided by moral principles, will be asked to compromise and reciprocate for benefits that she receives.  But what makes her situation particularly prickly is that there are numerous ways that a debt can be repaid, and the payback expected is in a currency most dear to her.

The characters face numerous conundrums and must deal with significant questions.  Who are we – really?  Do we always apply the same moral rules to ourselves that we place on others?  Are we all willing to compromise our principles, but it’s only a matter of price?  How significantly can or do peoples’ personalities really change?  Can many ethical missteps from youth simply be ascribed to growing up?

“Sex With Strangers” deals with these issues and more.  The playwright confronts these matters in a riveting narrative that totally engages.  It is hard to imagine two actors providing more dazzling performances than Allison F. Rich and Matthew Kropschot, and Director Johnny Moreno deserves recognition for maintaining the pace throughout.   In case it’s not clear, this reviewer liked the play – a lot.

“Sex With Strangers” is written by Laura Eason, produced by San Jose Stage, and plays in its theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through October 30, 2022.

The Music of Mothers

Kim Donovan as Ethyl, Chelsea Bearce as May.

Don’t they understand that what they characterize as color-blindness simply perpetuates white privilege?  Why won’t they admit that even though they make exceptions for select members of the minority community that they adhere to white supremacy?  Why don’t they see that every news outlet that disagrees with the right-wing media is not left-wing media, but often just reporting events as objectively as they can?  Why don’t his supporters realize that even though his detractors hate him, that everything is not about him?

As May often proclaims, she and Ethyl were best friends from the time they were in-vitro.  They grew up as Generation Xers on the poor side of El Paso, living next door to one another their whole lives in a neighborhood that was mostly black.  They married, and even had their only offspring, both boys, around the same time.  The boys would grow up as classmates and best friends.  May is black.  Ethyl is white.

Chelsea Bearce as May, Elijah Waller as her son R.J.

Victoria Evans Erville has crafted a thoughtful rendering about a roller coaster of friendship and motherhood that touches many bases, intensified by dimensions of race and sexual identity.  We meet the young women in 1996 when May is about to give birth.  They reveal lightheartedness and a bonding that has over two decades of history as juveniles.

They now see life as adults, and a sharp divide occurs when discussing May’s husband Randal’s deployment to the Middle East.  Ethyl’s perspective focuses on Randal’s pride in soldiering and his helping to make America safe by fighting a war far from home.  But May resents that because of being a black man, his options are limited.  The military was his only way out, and he risks his life for a cause that she questions.

For the remainder of the play, the women, and later their sons, will meet in their yards.  History will march on and political and social events will color their lives, especially the Obama and Trump presidencies.  Although they continue to share moments, episodes will increasingly reflect their divergence.  May becomes protective of and fearful for her son because of the constant threats faced by young black men.  Increasingly, Ethyl buys into the narratives posited by Fox News.  She also suffers from denial about her son’s being gay and resents that he favors May over her.

Dylan O’Shea as Troy, Ethyl’s son; Kim Donovan as Ethyl.

The two lead actors give masterful performances.  Chelsea Bearce portrays May deftly, capturing her fierce determination that she can better herself and that her son should have a better life than his father.  The conviction of her beliefs born of painful experience is convincing.

Kim Donovan embodies an archetype most feared by political liberals.  She conveys charm and friendliness that belie deep-seated biases.  Like many of her ilk, the privilege afforded her is ingrained.  She succumbs to fallacious arguments about the liberal press and fake news and is impervious to facts, so that converting her with truth is difficult.  She turns vignettes about individuals who are outside of her tribe into generalizations about whole communities but fails to apply the same principles to her own people.  Further, she diminishes the pain of other groups by equating that “we all have our crosses to bear,” not appreciating that blackness, unlike gayness or political beliefs, can’t be hidden or modified.

In a final episode, the women are confronted with an unexpected challenge.  May has criticized Ethyl for lacking empathy, and when prodding her to do the right thing, May levels what should be a haymaker to any professed Christian – “What would Jesus do?”  Regrettably, many who claim to follow Christ would not act in accordance with his teachings.  What will Ethyl do?

The playwright, who also directs, dispatches a dizzying number of important social messages and does so in an entertaining and involving manner.  The central theme considers the effects of politics on the two lifelong friends, and while May remains consistent throughout, Ethyl offers more interest as a character because she evolves, and not always in one direction or with consistency, which makes for a more intriguing person and reflects realism.

Kim Donovan as Ethyl, Chelsea Bearce as May.

Another thread concerns family relationships.  Though both women love their sons, even true familial love doesn’t always run smooth.  The grabber to the title of the play, which is “Mothering is a political act,” also makes a commentary on modern life and why people have children.  In past times, procreation was largely automatic with comparatively little thought of consequences.  Now it has become a more conscious decision that reflects beliefs and expectations.

Many new plays undergo revision even after their premieres, and some aspects of “The Music of Mothers” might deserve reconsideration.  The plot contains endless issues, but it could use more intense dramatic conflict to support them.  With all of the fear raised because of one boy being black and the other gay, they don’t experience physically damaging incidents to validate the concerns.  Also, the matter of the white son being gay and the mother’s denial recurs often, but some references seem repetitive.

Kudos for simple but effective staging – Seafus Chatmon for scenic, Stephanie Johnson for lighting, and Dave Ragaza for sound design.

A final comment is that in the world of the Bay Area, this play is preaching to the choir.  For it to have legs and persuade the unwashed, May might need to have more flaws, even if she should undeniably be the better person.  Meanwhile, it is for our crowd to enjoy.

“The Music of Mothers” is a world premiere written by Victoria Evans Erville, produced by TheatreF1rst, and performed at Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA through October 23, 2022.

The Elixir of Love

Christopher Bozeka as Nemorino, Elena Galván as Adina, Samuel J. Weiser as Dr. Dulcamara, Alba Franco-Cancél as Giannetta, Andrew W. Potter as Belcore. All photos by Barbara Mallon.

Opera can be the most weighty and severe of the performing arts.  Thus, when a frothy and fun piece comes along, it may seem like a guilty pleasure.  So it is with “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore). But make no mistake, it flows from the same pen that gave us distinguished works like the dark “Lucia di Lammermoor” and the trifecta of Tudor-period operas, as well as other great operas buffa like “Don Pasquale” and “Daughter of the Regiment.”

Although Donizetti concocted this superficially light-hearted confection, “Elixir” is a serious delight from curtain to curtain, both as an entertainment and as a great work of composition.  As we have come to expect, Livermore Valley Opera once again punches above its weight with a totally appealing production that hits all the right notes, literally and figuratively.  This rather small-scale production works well in a smaller house, and the performing artists do a magnificent job with singing, comic acting, and playing.

Christopher Bozeka as Nemorino, Elena Galván as Adina.

“Elixir” tells the story of peasant Nemorino who is in love with landowner Adina, a woman above his station.  Of course, Adina shows no interest in Nemorino.  Itinerant “medicine man” “Dr.” Dulcamara will provide the elixir of the title that he promises will make the consumer irresistible.  Complications follow, and happily, the ending meets expectations.

Appropriate to our California home, Adina is portrayed not just as any landowner, but as the owner of the vineyard, where the opera is set.  The charming stage is comprised largely of features like grapevines and the winery depicted cartoon-like in two-dimensions.  Even Dulcamara’s medicine wagon appears on a flat, moveable panel, but this artistic contrivance pleases.

Andrew W. Potter as Belcore, Christopher Bozeka as Nemorino.

Melody abounds in “Elixir,” and even the recitatives, which seem infrequent, sound unusually melodious.  From Nemorino’s opening aria, ‘Quanto è bella!’ about how gorgeous he finds Adina, we sense how beautiful the music will be.  As importantly to this production, we know from his very first phrase that Christopher Bozeka as Nemorino will regale us with a wonderful tenor instrument possessing an emotion-filled Italianate lilt with a big tremolo that suits this work so well.  In addition, his fine comic acting makes Nemorino a funny and sympathetic character.

In answer, Elena Galván, who has graced Bay Area opera stages in several productions, equally captivates as Adina.   From her first arias about an elixir that she has read about, ‘Della crudele Isotta,’ and about her fickleness as a lover in ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ she displays not only a commanding middle range but some spinto characteristics. She possesses an extremely powerful yet seemingly effortless top end and a facility for rapid patter – a skill required of male roles on several occasions as well.  Toward the end of the evening, Galván reveals her versatility with an astounding array of vocal gymnastics.


It’s not enough that Adina has rejected Nemorino, but she falls instead for Belcore, a sergeant in the visiting army regiment.  That part is played by the towering figure of Andrew W. Potter, who diminishes Nemorino physically and with a dominating, confident swagger as well.  Belcore’s role is written for a baritone, and Potter handles that range quite smoothly and mellifluously.  However, he is actually a lyric bass, and there is one passage for which he deftly descends into an almost basso profundo mode.  It is so far out of baritone range that it presumably was written in as an alternative for a deeper voice.

Into the fray comes the snake oil salesman, Dulcamara, who has no interest but making a quick buck and a quicker getaway.  Although the character perpetuates fraud, he is played in a jovial manner by baritone-bass Samuel J. Weiser with little edge and a fair bit of charm.  He sings with great verve, though his timing with the orchestra is not always on.  Dulcamara facilitates the merriment and confusion by plying Nemorino with a supposed elixir that gives him a shot of courage to take on his challenges.

Christopher Bozeka as Nemorino.

Can any review of “The Elixir of Love” fail to mention its signature aria, ‘Una furtiva lagrima’?  The mournful air, accentuated by the interplay of the tenor’s voice with the haunting bassoon, makes it one of opera’s memorable pieces.  As with all of his singing, Bozeka delivers the goods with a passion-charged rendition of this beautiful piece that received a well-deserved extended applause with bravos from the audience on opening night.

The composer has also created a number of attractive ensemble pieces, which are as well executed as designed.  A final mention goes to the Alexander Katsman conducted orchestra and the chorus.  For their size, they create a very full and rich sound that enhances the overall production and contributes to a memorable experience.

Elena Galván as Adina.

“The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore), composed by Gaetano Donizetti with libretto by Felice Romani after Eugène Scribe’s text based on Daniel Auber’s opera “Le Philtre,” is produced by Livermore Valley Opera, and plays at Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street, Livermore, CA through October 9, 2022.